All fish food sales are up, according to retailers and industry experts. The aquatics industry is doing very well in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, and fish food sales are especially well off because of their essential nature and ready supply.
“Customers who were usually only buying one or two packs are now buying four or five packs to limit their visits to the store,” said Will Garnett, owner of Palmetto Reef, a retailer in West Columbia, S.C. “Frozen foods don’t go bad as long as you keep them frozen and keep them closed so they don’t get freezer bite. So as long as customers come in and stock up, they’re OK. They never know if they are going to have another lockdown or quarantine or something happens again. So we’ve been advising customers to buy in bulk way more than they used to.”
Changing habits as a result of the pandemic mean the time is ripe for encouraging aquarists.
“People are spending more time at home,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA, a manufacturer in Hayward, Calif. “They are looking for a respite from the daily stress of COVID-19. What better way than an aquarium to allow them to interact with nature in their living rooms and reduce stress levels at the same time? There is a ton of research that proves aquariums can and do lower blood pressure and reduce stress levels. [The pandemic has created] a perfect storm for aquarium-related product sales.”
Clevers said there have been nationwide reports of big jumps in aquarium sales, with the only sticking point being that supply is an issue.
“If there were no supply issues, we believe retailers would be finding even more success,” he said.
But on a positive note, where other dry goods have experienced issues related with availability and distribution, aquatic foods seem to be mostly insulated from these problems, retailers reported. It’s also advantageous to carry a wide selection of dietary offerings, retailers stated.
“As an independent retailer, I’m always looking for manufacturers that are not mainstream,” said Howie Berkowitz, owner of Aquaridise, a retailer in East Brunswick, N.J. “I’m looking for higher-quality products that I can recommend to my customers. The NorthFin line has been one of the newer lines that I’ve brought in, which is doing very well. I think it’s a very-good-quality food. Sera is another really good line. But it doesn’t sell as well. However, I think the quality is certainly there. Frozen food has just been off the charts lately, both LRS and Hikari.”
The focus on high-quality food is common among local fish store owners.
“My favorite is NorthFin,” said Pam Nunnally, manager of Azalea Aquariums, a retailer in Richmond, Va. “I like the brand a lot. That’s a really high-quality food. Of course, Tetra and New Life Spectrum are popular choices. Hikari is popular. I’ve been picking up Sera, but it’s harder to find. I can’t get it through my normal supplier, but it is a really high-quality food.”
Many aquarists are trying frozen foods for the first time, and some are stocking up for the long-term.
“Frozen fish food sales have been steadily increasing since the start of the pandemic,” said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand and Ocean Nutrition Americas, manufacturers based in Newark, Calif. “All fish food sales are up, for that matter. This is most likely due to people being stuck at home and spending more time on their aquariums and possibly discovering frozen food for the first time or just wanting to offer their aquatic pets more variety. Cupboarding is most likely also taking place, although not to the extent it is taking place with foods for companion animals.”
Retailers are aware of the need to stay stocked up on foods. They are also increasingly considering the long-term impacts of the hobby, with an emphasis on sustainability.
“The trend in the hobby is toward natural [products] and more sustainability,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America, a manufacturer in Montgomeryville, Pa. “Many of our retail partners have created natural sections in theirs stores, or have fully committed to carrying more natural products. People increasingly care more about nature and want to implement this into their hobby. Therefore, they more often look for more sustainable products.”
Meeting Demand with New Dietary Options
Several manufacturers are introducing new aquatic nutrition products and lines, either as primary diets or dietary supplements.
Hikari Sales USA is releasing three new products, said Chris Clevers, president of the Hayward, Calif.-based manufacturer. To meet owner demand for smaller feeding options, Vibra Bites Baby is formatted as a smaller option for species such as bettas and neon tetras. The company is also releasing Spirulina Mysis Shrimp, which is formulated to incorporate spirulina algae into the system of mysis shrimp to help maintain and improve fish color over time. Additionally, it is introducing Vibra Bites XL to serve demand for a larger pellet format in the Vibra Bites line.
“We are also working on some novel marine foods that will be very different from what we have offered in the past,” Clevers said. “We are hoping to release these in early 2021. … We find consumers are generally looking for more natural-looking or -acting foods for their aquatic pets. They also tend to avoid changing foods once they find something that they feel their fish like or they see as beneficial to their aquatic pets or tank environment.”
Sera North America, a manufacturer in Montgomeryville, Pa., is moving to meet the demand for more natural dietary options, said sales manager Claus Frenken.
“We are currently changing our foods to a ‘Nature’ version,” he said. “These new foods do not contain any dyes or preservatives. We already launched our flake line of Sera Nature about two years ago. For the last two years, we had both versions of flakes available: a classic version as well as the Nature version without dyes and preservatives. During this time, we convinced our customers and partners that dyes and preservatives are not needed. For this reason, and because we want to work to be as sustainable as possible, we decided to change all our products to the Nature version. Thus, we will no longer produce any foods with dyes and preservatives.”
The company also recently introduced three foods that only contain insect meal as a protein source, Frenken said. These are Insect Nature, Pond Insect Nature and Turtle Adult. They are free of dyes and preservatives.
Bio-Enhance is now available in the U.S. from Fort Walton Beach, Fla.-based Quantum USA.
“Quantum Bio-Enhance has been the biggest breakthrough for us as far as an all-in-one amino acid, protein, vitamin, carbohydrate supplement,” said Will Garnett, owner of Palmetto Reef, a retailer in West Columbia, S.C. “They’re a company based out of Australia. We use their full line of chemistry products in all of our tanks. One of the things we really like about them is you can mix all of their trace elements into one bottle and dose it all at once. It saves you a lot on dosing.”
Calling Attention to Fish Food
Retailers are seeing success with fish diet sales by using impactful merchandising and selling strategies to call attention to the category.
“We use in-your-face marketing,” said Will Garnett, owner of Palmetto Reef, a retailer in West Columbia, S.C. “We put stickers everywhere. We’ve got the freezers right out front with Rod’s Food and LRS stickers on them. We’ve got branding everywhere that helps keep it in your face. As soon as you see it, you have to think a lot less about what you are going to buy.”
Others rely on word-of-mouth and a positive reputation to drive fish food sales.
“We keep our frozen diets in a regular freezer,” said Pam Nunnally, manager of Azalea Aquariums, a retailer in Richmond, Va. “It’s not a glass-front freezer. Normally, customers ask about it and we make a recommendation.”
Multiple freezers, some with glass fronts, are popular among many retailers.
Howie Berkowitz, owner of Aquaridise, a retailer in East Brunswick, N.J., said he has two freezers, one of which is a glass-door model.
“That’s certainly the best way to merchandise frozen food,” Berkowitz said. “Consumers can see the product. The other freezer is for overflow. The rest of my foods, the dry, freeze-dried, pelleted and flake, we merchandise together in one area of the store by brand. Grouping by brand tends to create a better presentation than putting all the goldfish pellets together and all the cichlid pellets together. ... I stock food containers three deep on my shelves.”
Pushing for add-on sales is also important.
“Retailers have to get really good at suggestive selling and add-on sales,” said Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA, a manufacturer in Hayward, Calif. “Frozen food is a perfect option for this. Think about the number of consumers who visit your store to buy fish food. If you can add a $5 package of frozen food to each of those sales—and it is not that hard with some creative thinking and focus—just imagine what that will do to your monthly sales. Additionally, if you do not have a glass-door freezer, really take some time to consider it. We have been offering these units for almost 20 years and find that a glass-door freezer significantly increases frozen food sales.”
Focusing on frozen offerings is ideal, agreed Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand and Ocean Nutrition Americas, manufacturers based in Newark, Calif.
“Frozen fish food is the best way to create add-on or repeat sales,” Oneppo said. “On average, a hobbyist will return to a store 11 or more times per year for frozen foods. This also leads to customers making additional purchases as they browse the aisles, whether it be a new fish, decoration or even food. Compare that to people returning to a store, on average, one to two times per year for dry food.”
Nutrition as Outreach
By providing customers with valuable education, local fish stores gain a competitive edge when it comes to fish food and dietary product sales.
“It’s important to have knowledgeable staff that understand fish nutrition, but also understand what different foods have to offer,” said Jason Oneppo, research and development manager for San Francisco Bay Brand and Ocean Nutrition Americas, manufacturers based in Newark, Calif. “Different foods can entice unique feeding behaviors in some fish species that are interesting for hobbyists to observe.”
Offering consistency is also helpful.
“Being loyal to some brands means that customers know they can find and buy the same can of food at the same store each time they visit,” said Claus Frenken, sales manager for Sera North America, a manufacturer in Montgomeryville, Pa. “It confuses customers if there are new products in the store every time they visit.”
Providing educational materials in-store is another way to inform customers, with the added benefit of helping to save sales associates’ already precious time.
“We have literature out on our tabletops and our counters,” said Will Garnett, owner of Palmetto Reef, a retailer in West Columbia, S.C. “We have a couch in our lobby that has information packets on all the products that we have laid out so customers can sit down and read about them.”
Serious aquarists are more focused on high-quality food options. This means store employees have to be up to the task of sharing what’s new and making authoritative recommendations as needed.
“My customers are not your average 10-gallon fish tank owner,” said Howie Berkowitz, owner of Aquaridise, a retailer in East Brunswick, N.J. “They’re looking for a higher-grade food. The guy who’s coming in and buying $80 worth of cichlids realizes that feeding them a higher-quality food is a good idea. It’s advantageous both to the health of their aquarium and the health for their fish. My consumer is looking for better nutrition in their aquatic foods, and that’s why our employees are here to guide them.”
Building a positive reputation and focusing on education allows retailers to establish themselves as the go-to source for fish nutrition and aquatic products in general.
“That’s exactly how we built our business,” Garnett said. “We rely on word-of-mouth and one-on-one interactions. … We take a lot of time one-on-one with the customers. We know most of our customers by name. I know almost everything that’s in all of our customers’ tanks. It gets a little crazy when you’ve got a couple thousand customers, but you build that reputation and you build that library. We keep a big book with all of our customers’ names, and you can flip to information on their setup. It just helps us track.”
Chris Clevers, president of Hikari Sales USA in Hayward, Calif.
What advice do you have for retailers when it comes to educating customers about fish diets?
Stores have a tendency to carry too many brands of fish food. This makes it very difficult to reaffirm your stature as the food expert, keeps your staff from being able to know intimately what they are selling and, more importantly, confuses the heck out of the consumer. We are big fans of the good, better, best approach to fish foods. It is easy to train your staff on three [and] easy to move someone up from good to better, and then later to best as they see improvements in their fish color, activity level and aquarium parameters. Consumers want what is best for their fish; they may not always be able to afford it but will appreciate knowing about the benefits each type offers. Additionally, they want to enjoy their fish, not spend time doing the cleanup routine due to lower-quality foods. Retailers have to avoid prejudging the consumer and what they will buy and concentrate on offering advantages for a price. Then let the consumer make the choice for their situation. Spend some time, start a conversation, ask if they are having any issues with their tank. More than likely, something they say will offer the perfect segue to a food discussion or a food add-on sale.
Sampling is also a great option for getting people to try new foods. Many are reluctant to try something new because their fish eat what they are using. A sample gives them a low- or no-cost option to try something new and the retailer an easy way to upsell them on to a higher profit margin or dollar sale item.
Things are a bit different with COVID-19, so think outside the box about creative ways you can start a fish food conversation. More often than not, you will find that discussion turn to a sale. Remember, there are no consumer events in 2020, so your store is now the local resource for new product and information collection. Use it to your advantage and don’t let a consumer leave your store without what they came for. You want them back!